Misfires, Stalls, and Mistakes: Interview with Anthony Tognazzini

by Julie Chibbaro

My interview this week is with an author, Anthony Tognazzini, whom we can all thank for giving me the idea to start our Get Lit Beacon salon. Back in the 1990s, when I moved to Prague with the idea of becoming a writer, he was the leader of a literary salon called Beefstew, which met weekly at a local pub. I brought a story to read, and listened to his writing, and felt my whole idea of what it meant to be a writer shifting. He was one of the first people to give me positive feedback, and also to show me how to demand more of my work. Anthony is the author of many short stories, and the collection I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such As These. You can listen to his story “Neighbors” read aloud at WNYC’s Selected Shorts here.

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GLB: Would you call yourself a perfectionist? Or how do you judge your own work (or know if what you’re writing is good?)

AT: My stories aren’t perfect, so no, but I try to make each one as good as it can be. I’m a slow learner, and writing takes me a long time; much of the process is spent just trying to figure out the most basic stuff, like what the story’s really about and how it’s going to unfold. There are a lot of misfires, stalls, and mistakes, a lot of bumbling around. The process feels inefficient and often pointless, but it also helps me discover where the real story is, and pushes the draft, successively, through revision, toward some more fully realized form. Getting rhythm and sound right is really important to me too. But none of that is unusual. All serious writers have high standards in these regards.

As for judging the work, it helps to read it out loud, and to get feedback from readers you trust.

Doubt plays an important part in keeping my standards high. Believing my draft is a piece of shit doubles as a way to figure out how to make it more solid, more honest, and more imaginative. I sometimes worry that I revise so much to compensate for a lack of other gifts. I asked the poet Dean Young if genius was maybe a matter of timing, that what the genius can do in 10 minutes might take a hard-working non-genius 10 years to do. (Dean’s answer, “Maybe taking 10 years is the genius part.”)

But I also know that if I doubt too much or for too long then the work probably isn’t that good, and I need to either quit or totally re-think the story.

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GLB: Do you keep a diary? Or how do you keep track of your thoughts as a writer?

AT: I don’t keep a diary or daily record of my life and thoughts, but I take a lot of notes in notebooks. I also use the Notes function of my iPhone. Some of those iPhone entries are devoted to a story idea, and I’ll just add more to it now and then, sometimes over months or years. Eventually I type those notes into a Word document, adding more, and in this way build bones for a story, collage-style and by accretion. This has advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes the gaps created by the collage approach create too many narrative absences that are then hard to reconcile. I’d like to move more toward generative, narrative-driven momentum in my writing process.

GLB: How has your writing changed over the years?

AT: I used to write shorter stories, and I think I’ve lost some of the spontaneity and freedom those forms allowed. I’m writing longer stories now, and trying to do more within the stories, so in terms of composition and story construction it’s gotten more complicated. Everything in the process takes about a thousand years.

Certain literary qualities that I believed in when I was younger still hold. I still want the stories to be fun, energetic, subversive, and emotionally impactful.

One key change is that the stories I’m writing for my current book are more concerned with moral questions. Especially around issues of social equality, justice, and individual freedom, the stories have become more moral. That might sound icky and prescriptive, but the morality is philosophical, speculative, a way to explore problems and imagine solutions. In a broad sense, the writing tries more to help. It wants to be of service.

Anthony Tognazzini is the author of the fiction collection I Carry A Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such As These (BOA). He has received fellowships from Yaddo, Millay, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Djerassi Resident Artists Program. He teaches Creative Writing at the College of Wooster in Ohio. 

Year End Roundup – Our Favorite Posts!

by Jody Strimling-Muchow

 

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In only one year, Get Lit Beacon has become an indispensable part of my writing life. Just the chance to spend a couple of hours a month in a room full of people as passionate about words as I am is a gift. Add thought-provoking and inspiring guest speakers and the chance to share work, and the gifts begin to spill out from under the tree. To torture my holiday metaphor, then the cookies arrive each week via blog posts that I gobble as soon as they land in my inbox. I’ve certainly learned from these weekly posts this year. As I looked back, I wondered what Julie, Kristen, Flora and Ruta had learned by writing them, and which posts stood out for them in 2018. I asked, they answered.

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Her interview with Lily Burana is Julie Chibbaro’s choice. In it, she asks Lily what it’s like to go so far out on a limb with her thoughts on so many difficult topics. Lily replies: “I may summon up a lot of nerve … but that’s only because that difficulty is counterbalanced by living a simple, and often solitary, life.” She can be brave in her writing because she keeps her private life very private. Something I find especially encouraging coming from an established author in our current world of personal brands and online self-promotion. But I think my favorite part of the interview is what Lily has to say about shitty first drafts. “Knowing that I can revise it until I’m satisfied gives me the courage to get started in the first place.” Yes!

Kristen Holt-Browning didn’t hesitate when I asked about her favorite post. It’s the one where she talks about reading poetry every day. Partly because she’s still doing it, which means that it’s truly having an impact on her. As she describes it, “in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language.” What stands out for me is how easily poetry can fit into a busy schedule. Like a snack to keep you going, a poem can be a little hit of beauty, emotion, wordplay. And inspiration.

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Tony Early’s interview is Flora Stadler’s choice. Mine, too. The open discussion of how depression affects Tony’s process affected me deeply. First, that he’s willing to put his experience out there, especially if it might help someone else. And then, because I have this fantasy that everyone else is writing daily in a wholly disciplined way and I’m a total slacker. My reasons may not be the same as his, but sometimes I just can’t make myself work. To hear a successful author say that he sometimes goes years without writing was something I really needed to hear.

Having someone from the publishing world give an insider’s glimpse is invaluable. I have learned a lot from Ruta Rimas’s posts. Her favorite, it turns out, isn’t about the industry itself but about improving your writing. In July she reminded us to pick up Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Yeah, yeah, whatever, said my inner bratty teenager. Then I did pick up my copy. Yeah! Yeah! Going back to the basics can be a great catalyst. Now I’m hoping that every word in this post counts.

What stood out for you this year? Let us know in the comments below.

Why Respectful Writing Matters: Interview with Lyn Miller-Lachmann

By Julie Chibbaro

We are all familiar with the way hashtags can create movements, and #ownvoices is one of those movements. #Ownvoices defines for readers books about marginalized characters that are actually written by marginalized authors, as opposed to, say, a white author co-opting a person of color’s experience.

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The multi-talented author Lyn Miller-Lachmann has written from both sides of this argument. I was curious what she thought about writing across races and experiences, as well as her view on the #ownvoices movement. Her answers provide some insight into what’s respectful within the boundaries, and why problems with writing outside of one’s own “voice” can occur.

GLB: I love that you write from the autism spectrum (Rogue) and cross culturally (Gringolandia, Surviving Santiago). You’ve been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, but you’re not from the Latin culture from which you’ve written. How do you feel about this political and social climate of #ownvoices, or writing from your “place” in the world only? Do you feel it’s limiting?

LML: This is a complicated question. I think the two most important reasons for #ownvoices are the preponderance of bad representations by outsiders that have become part of the canon—and this is a major problem for books with autistic characters because the early books were bestsellers and award winners and so problematic (see Elizabeth Bartmess’s review of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nght-Time in Disability in KidLit, for instance)—and the way in which non-#ownvoices books by bestselling authors have hoovered up scarce publishing slots, leaving marginalized authors unable to sell their work.

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When I started writing Gringolandia, and then Surviving Santiago as the sequel, the circumstances were somewhat different. I lived within a refugee community in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1980s and then spent time in Chile, where I observed the transition from dictatorship to democracy. My Chilean friends at the time asked me to write the book, because, as they said, “We want you to tell the people in your country what happened to us” as a result of the CIA bringing Pinochet to power. In fact, several of them were angry with me because I failed to find a publisher for the book for many years; they thought I would self-publish it because that’s much more common and respected in Chile than in the U.S. Given that Isabel Allende, Antonio Skármeta, and others were publishing fiction set in Chile during the dictatorship, I didn’t feel I was taking a slot away from anyone else but rather bringing their story—and the U.S.’s role in it—to a wider audience.

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While it’s important to do the research necessary to write outside one’s lane, it’s even more important to be aware of one’s motivation. Why do you want to tell someone else’s story? Will your writing this book deny an opportunity to someone else from a marginalized group? What are you willing to do to make sure an aspiring marginalized writer has a chance? At this point, I would rather serve as the translator for an #ownvoices writer from Latin America, which is something I’m in fact doing now for a Cuban author who’s trying to publish in English in the U.S., where he now lives. We haven’t had much luck yet with U.S. publishers, but he adapted the novel into a screenplay, which I also translated, and it has garnered a lot of interest.

GLB: You’re a translator as well as a novelist. How did you get so involved in Latin cultures and language?

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LML: I was a language ace in high school and did a study abroad mini-semester in Spain during my junior year, an experience I wrote about for YARN several years ago. Teaching in a high school with a predominantly Puerto Rican student body, alongside a Puerto Rican colleague rekindled my interest in Spanish as well as Latin American history, music, and culture. So when I arrived in Madison in 1983, I sought out Latin American New Song concerts and attended other cultural and political events. Then, when my family moved to the Albany, New York area, I became the assistant host of a weekly radio show of Latin American and Iberian music, poetry, and history on WRPI, “Los Vientos del Pueblo.” As part of my duties, I translated songs and poems and read the translations over the air. And when my husband won a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship and we moved to Lisbon, Portugal for half a year in 2012, I learned Portuguese and continued my studies (and my translation of songs from Brazil and Portugal) upon my return.

GLB: You’re also a teacher and editor, among other things. Do you find it difficult to wear so many hats? How do you manage?

LML: I think that to survive as a creative person today, one has to wear a lot of hats, because when one opportunity fizzles out, there have to be others waiting. Several years ago, I taught a number of one-off and semester-long workshops at the middle and high school level, but the organizers moved away and the programs ended. This year, more than half of my income has come from translation, but last year I had only one small translation project. For the past couple of years, I’ve made good money doing sensitivity readings from autism, and while I appreciate the income, I hope that sometime soon, my #ownvoices novels will find a publishing home.

In all this, my one constant is writing fiction. I’m always working on new projects and trying new things to develop my craft and explore moments in history with resonance today.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann is the author of Rogue (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013), the story of a eighth grader with undiagnosed Asperger’s and an X-Men obsession, in search of a friend and her own special power. Lyn has also written the historical YA novel Gringolandia (Curbstone, 2009) and its companion, Surviving Santiago (Running Press, 2015) and translated the picture book The World in a Second (Enchanted Lion, 2015) by Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo Carvalho from Portuguese to English.

 

Third Prize Winner, Fall ’18 Contest: Carded by Randy Calderone

by Randy Calderone

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“Last stop buddy, let’s go.”

The gravely voice of an MTA conductor was accompanied by a firm tap on the shoulder.

“Is this Beacon?”

“Nope,” the conductor responded as Walter groggily got to his feet. “Passed Beacon a-way’s back. You’re in Poughkeepsie.”

Walter looked at his watch.

“Shit.”

“Should be cabs outside that’ll take you down to Beacon if you need,” the conductor offered as he shuffled down the aisle away from him.

Walter grabbed his bag and exited the train car, the crisp autumn air chilling his face as he stepped onto the platform. He reached into his pocket and fished out a business card with an address on it and began walking towards a yellow minivan waiting by the curb.

“Can you take me here?” Walter asked while thrusting the card into the driver’s face.

“You sure you wanna go there?” the driver responded, eyebrows raised.

“Yes, and quickly please, I’m already running late.”

Walter walked around the front of the van to get in the passenger side, and the driver shook his head.

“Citiot,” he chuckled to himself quietly.

Walter and the driver sat in silence as they sped down Route 9, the suburban sprawl flickering past outside the windows. A saxophone was gently blowing on the radio and the driver nudged the volume up a bit.

“I’m not going there for me, you know,” Walter stated abruptly.

“Hey buddy, I don’t judge,” the driver responded. “It takes all types of people in this world, I just drive ‘em.”

“No, seriously,” Walter continued. “I’m looking for someone. The last I heard was that he went to this address.”

“Heard that before,” the driver said, unfazed. “You’re the fourth guy this week that I’m taking there. Listen, it’s nothin’ to be ashamed of. Really. I even thought of goin’ there myself from time to time.”

Walter turned to look back out the window as the minivan wound its way through downtown Wappinger’s Falls. The leaves on the trees were speckled with oranges, marigolds and crimsons and they swayed gently in the wind.

“Sure is pretty here,” Walter said to himself out loud.

“Mmm-hmm,” the driver nodded in agreement. “My favorite time of year personally.”

The two of them continued on in silence as their surroundings became more rural. A group of cows stood grazing in a field and one of them lazily lifted its head to observe the yellow minivan passing by.

“How long does it usually take?” Walter broke the silence.

“I couldn’t rightly say,” the driver replied. “Most folks come off the train with that same card you got and I just drop ‘em off. Never picked anyone up there though.”

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“You think it’ll be busy?”

“Oh, it’s always busy.”

The minivan crossed a bridge with the interstate speeding by underneath and a sign appeared welcoming them to the City of Beacon. The driver slowed down as he turned onto Main Street, and groups of people stood clustered on the sidewalk. Walter glanced down at his watch again.

“Almost there now,” the driver said.

The minivan turned onto a side street and then turned again. The driver slowed to a stop in front of a brightly colored house.

“What’s wrong?” Walter asked.

“Nothin’ wrong,” the driver replied. “This is it.”

“Are you serious?” responded Walter, the hesitation heavy in his voice. He turned the card over in his hand and double-checked the address, then looked back up at the house.

“What were you expecting?”

“I’m not really sure, but not this.”

“Welp, this is it. Not much I can do about that. The entrance is around back.”

Walter handed some bills to the driver and opened the door to get out.

“Thanks for the ride,” Walter said. “You can keep the change.”

“Good luck in there,” the driver responded and pulled away, leaving Walter standing alone on the sidewalk.

Walter took a deep breath and unlatched the gate in front of the house. He followed the brick pathway through the side yard and arrived to a line of people waiting in the backyard. There were probably close to twenty people he’d estimate, all with their eyes eagerly fixed upon the back door, the same business card dangling from their hands. He was surprised by the variety of people there – some that looked to be about his age, but several younger than him too. Two elderly women stood in line together a few spots in front of him.

“How long have you been waiting?” Walter quietly asked the older man in front of him.

“I’ve been waiting my whole life for this,” the man replied.

“No, I meant, how long have you been in line,” Walter responded with a puzzled look.

“Not long.” the man answered. “It will be worth the wait, regardless.”

Suddenly, the back door creaked open and a collective gasp rippled through the line. The people craned their necks to get a look inside, but all Walter could see was darkness.

A young man with glasses at the head of the line stepped up into the doorway. The other people stared longingly as he disappeared into the doorway and the door shut again behind him.

The line of people inched ahead and Walter looked down at his feet as he shuffled forward. The line stopped moving, and Walter joined the others, staring eagerly at the door, the business card clutched tightly between his fingers.

Bio: Randy Calderone is an English teacher and photographer.

 

 

A Little Beacon: Interview with Katie Hellmuth Martin

by Julie Chibbaro

Last month, in October, we were lucky to have two journalists join us for Get Lit Beacon. One of them, blogger, public relations expert, and owner of A Little Beacon Blog, Katie Hellmuth Martin, shares her thoughts about finding a good story:

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Katie Hellmuth Martin

GLB: How do you know when you have a story that really works, that you want to pursue?

Katie: When I hear a statement that has bigger implications, my ears perk up. For instance, during a regular yearly budget negotiation for the trash pickup contract, the attorney representing Royal Carting – the trash collector for Beacon – mentioned that Beacon is no longer getting paid for recycling, but rather is paying to have it picked up. I knew from earlier reporting two years ago that this was a big shift. It was a pretty simple statement said in an off-the-cuff way, but I decided to look into it.

If there is a mystery about who did what, or where something came from, then I know I have interest in a story. It could be anything, such as “what is the Spirit of Beacon Day?” even though by now, I myself know what it is. But as long as I remember that others don’t, then that fresh, wondering spirit will stay alive on A Little Beacon Blog.

GLB: Can you talk a little about how you put together a news story?

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Katie: I have a lot of Text Edit documents open. Either I’ll type thoughts into there, and any URLs I’ve found along the way, or I’ll put them straight into a draft at the blog. If I interview someone, they get their own Text Edit document saved into my Notes folder in my blog, called “A Little Beacon Blog” or ALBB on my computer. I only hand write notes if I’m visiting someone in person who might be put off by a laptop or if I don’t have a laptop.

As I marinate, sometimes I stall because I don’t know if it’s timely enough. Sometimes an idea will hit me for the Subject Line in the email that will go out with the article. When and if that happens, the story gets out much faster because I get that much more excited to share it with my readers.

GLB: How do you stay fresh and not get burned out on the glut of information? How do you see a story as important?

Katie: Sometimes, very often, I miss the boat with timeliness. And that makes me sad. I’ll often try hard to fit in an older story. I see a story as important if I feel that a lot of people didn’t know about it, or if they saw misinformation on social media, and if I can get the facts and the links to back something up. Then the story has stronger legs and will seem important to people’s lives.

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Katie Hellmuth Martin is a writer, blogger, designer, business owner, wife and mama. She has been working in the tech space since 2005 as a website producer, digital content strategist, blogger, and small business owner. She is the co-founder of Tin Shingle, the web-based community and resource making buzz-building affordable and accessible to all small business owners. Katie runs A Little Beacon Blog (www.alittlebeaconblog.com), a blog spotlighting her hometown of Beacon, NY and the local businesses that help it thrive.